Reflections on Genius – are there two sides to every success?

10 days ago, I was lucky enough to attend the World Science Festival in New York City. One of the sessions I attended was called “Beautiful Minds: The Enigma of Genius,” where a panel composed of successful individuals from the arts and sciences discussed the history, culture and neuroscience of genius. (Read more in the Nature Network write-up, which includes the tweets from the event).

As part of the discussions, Philip Glass, the world-renowned composer, defined genius as “the tools needed to get the job done: technique, independence and stamina”. This seems to sum up many (all?) of the characteristics needed for a successful scientific career, leading me to wonder whether the Nobel Laureates would agree that they’ve had to demonstrate all three to win their prizes? At last year’s Lindau meeting, we heard of the importance of stamina from Oliver Smithies, who shared pages of his lab books with us; these detailed his Saturday morning experiments in dutifully recorded scribbles. He explained the importance of not losing valuable momentum by completely winding down experiments at the weekends and how, when you love your subject, it shouldn’t feel like work most of the time—you simply feel a spontaneous compulsion to work hard. In her talk, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi indicated that you need both independence and technique to have an impact, something she also talked about in her interview with Martin Fenner and me. Aware that a solely research-based approach to HIV and AIDS is not enough, she has spent much time cultivating partnerships in AIDS-stricken countries where education projects are just as important as the therapies her lab works on. We also heard about the importance of maintaining humour from Ada Yonath. Although this was something that Glass didn’t mention, it can be a source of stamina to some researchers, enabling them to persist through inevitable challenges.  

Back at the World Science Festival panel, Julie Taymor, director of musicals and theatre productions including “The Lion King”, expanded Glass’ definition of genius. She explained that being a genius was a balancing of input and output – an ability to be completely immersed in a subject, assimilating information quickly and assessing its importance, while also being able to stand apart from the subject, make judgements on it and come up with your own original output.  

This idea of there being two sides to genius is something that I’d like to expand on – in terms of what it means practically to be someone working at the top of their game, but to also ask what it means for other areas of that person’s life and those around them.

We’ve probably all observed the often obsessive dedication of someone working on their pet project, where they are blinkered to anything but their research, but we’ve also heard anecdotes of how inspiration can strike in moments of “down-time”. The classic examples that I remember learning at school are Newton sitting under a tree and being hit by an apple, which helped him understand gravity, and Archimedes, who was sitting in the bath when he worked out that objects displace the equivalent amount of water as their own volume. The importance of this quiet time for the brain to reflect was also discussed at the World Science Festival. Neuro-imaging data shows that chess grandmasters, for example, have less “noisy” brains than non-experts i.e. they only use specific brain areas in a very focused way. The importance of vacation, or at least distance from a problem, is also something that has been shown to be important for focused thought.

One of the concerns with modern life is the temptation to be continually connected to the stream of data flowing through the various media we can now access on-demand. We may lose the quiet time for our brains to mull over what we’ve been working on. Genius doesn’t just require hard work, it also requires perspective, and drowning in a sea of knowledge is not the same as standing on a cliff top taking in the view. How will the Nobel Laureates of the future optimise their working practices today to make sure they still gain the insights needed to make ground-breaking discoveries?

Finally, the panel at the World Science Festival asked whether obsession with a subject could become pathological or simply detrimental to the daily functioning of a person who works so hard. While there was no conclusive data discussed, it seems plausible that hours of hard work in the lab might take a toll on family life. Successful scientists have talked about how they have handled this in different ways. Some rely on supportive partners to keep their home life running smoothly; others pay for help with raising their children; while others choose to remain childless and dedicate themselves to their research.

All of this raises a wider question; would geniuses be able to make their breakthoughs, creating the scientific foundations on which future generation work, if others in their work and/or private lives weren’t also there to support them, allowing them to pursue their talents and use their brains to their full potential? Perhaps when we celebrate the achievements of the Nobel Laureates, we should also spend a moment reflecting on the lab technicians who prepared the buffers or the partners who acted as a sounding board for new ideas?

Maybe “the enigma of genius” that we need to grasp is that there are two contrasts needed for every aspect of success – hungry assimilation of facts versus swift output of responses, close-up toil combined with more relaxed moments, and a pioneering captain supported by willing crewmates.